In the 1980s and 90s, metropolitan club owner Peter Gatien was such an influential taste-maker that he was once dubbed “the king of New York City nightclubs.” His crown jewel was Limelight, a midnight haven that welcomed thousands of enthusiastic patrons — celebrities, drag queens, dancers — and blasted innovative electronic tunes until sunrise. All walks of life were welcome in the Studio 54 of the 1990s, until Mayor Rudolph Guliani’s crime crackdown descended onto Gatien. His clubs were raided, he was arrested on tax evasion charges and deported to Canada.
The new documentary ‘Limelight’ premiering in New York this weekend looks at a version of the city that thrived under his influence, and went hand-in-hand with the birth of ecstasy culture in the 90s. Who better to tackle Peter Gatien’s controversial career than his own daughter?
Moviefone spoke ‘Limelight’ producer Jen Gatien about depicting the troubles that arise when your own family in a tough documentary, as well the changing landscape of NYC in film.
You’re producing a movie… about your dad. How did that happen?
Initially it was to be a feature film, and I had worked on launching it that way. We went down that road and into development hell, as it’s known, so it didn’t really go anywhere. In the meantime, I pursued my own projects and got some of my own films produced. Now that we’re fifteen years away from my father’s indictment, I thought if there was a time to look at the nineties, it’s nice to do it with some years in between.
So I conceived of the project and knew I needed to find a director that was appropriate for the subject matter. After seeing ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ I thought that Billy Corben was the best match, topic wise. I liked how he used the city to form the story of cocaine smuggling, and how cocaine built Miami. I wanted to look at how ecstasy was a decade defining drug, and how it’s so synonymous with the nineties.
Considering everything that’s happened to your father, what was the working relationship like during the production?
My father managed people, he’s always been the boss of people. There’s a power reversal here, and not that I’m power tripping, but Billy Corben, as a director, doesn’t answer to anybody. I don’t know that my father’s ever had to deal with that sort of dynamic before. And for him, I think it’s been incredibly difficult to accept that he can’t control how he’s portrayed.
It was an opportunity to set the record straight from his point of view. But it’s very balanced because we speak to the other people that were involved. And they should get their version of events. I think when people leave the movie, they’re going to feel one way or the other. Was it Giuliani’s campaign to clean the city? Did we suffer at all through that, or was it all good? By cleaning up New York City, what did we lose?
What other recent projects do you think have accurately captured the flavor of New York City right now?
I keep going back to Abel Ferrara because I love him and I know just how much of an iconic New Yorker he is; he gets into parts of New York that other people can’t penetrate.
Off the top of my head, I’m trying to think of what I’ve seen; that’s probably a testament to what New York is about now. Has it been so gentrified and commercialized that the city isn’t the character it once was in previous decades in film? I have to say, that’s probably what it is.
Even Woody Allen has been pushed out.
He’s like, “Dude, take me to Paris, there’s nothing to do here!” There’s no grit, there’s no underbelly. It’s sanitized in many ways; New York is feeling interchangeable to other generic American cities.
You were in your twenties when this boom happened and when your father was involved with it; how involved were you in the club culture?
I wasn’t emergent in the culture. I had an appreciation for the culture, but I had a very strong sense of a different life from that of my father’s. I guess it’s kind of the way I rebelled — by not doing what he did. Instead I was very academic and went to Trinity, which is a very rigorous, academic program, and later went to Columbia. So while I would go to clubs, it didn’t define who I was in a any way.
When you did go, how did you perceive that world? Did it overwhelm you, excite you, freak you out?
I thought it was so killer to go into a place with 4,000 people of every walk of life and be under the same roof and come into contact with people that I would otherwise never meet. This was also a pre-paparazzi and pre-cellphone-camera age. So even being a nightclub owner’s daughter, I was pretty anonymous. There were celebrities but everyone blended it. It wasn’t really that relevant who you were in any way, it was just sort of about the energy of being, you know, hearing DJs spin and drag queens and an art performance and it was just a lot of stimulae.
For the audience that is totally alien to the scene, what aspects do you hope they connect with?
I never intended this film to be a love letter to ‘Limelight.’ This film for me, was a statement of our federal justice system and I also wanted to expose how cooperation agreements work and how the government will give you a pass on the crimes you’ve committed if you’re willing to take down somebody else.
I don’t think people realize what’s involved in that. In my father’s case, there were people that had not been convicted — for murders, drug dealing, not paying their taxes, assault, impersonating an office, kidnapping, bank robberies.. Those people were all given a walk on any of those crimes provided they were willing to point the finger at my father. It said something really disturbing on the lengths to which the federal government will go if they want to get somebody.
When you look at the depiction of club and drug culture in movies, do you think it’s glamorized?
I’ve yet to see a film that can capture the energy and the feeling. The only film I think did it really well was ‘Babel.’ I feel like there’s that sense, in the Japanese segment when she walks into the club and you can’t even hear the audio, but you just see the stimulae, and then sense of all the things going on around her. The intensity of that, it’s the only film that comes to mind, they nailed it. Every other film has been pretty pathetic.
Then what do you think about both the documentary and then the feature version, of ‘Party Monster,’ especially because that story is so connected to your father’s history?
I looked at those projects as something that tackled the subset of nightclub culture: club kids. I think in that sense, it’s a successful film,. What I feel is very different about ‘Limelight’, is that it’s more of a socio-political crime thriller with a mixture of cultural significance of club culture, but it’s not devoted to club kids in any way, shape, or form.
With Limelight and the club scene in the nineties, even if you weren’t a part of it, you could recognize what it was. Do you think that youth, college and post-college, have something like that now to gravitate to?
I think that for this generation, everything is so demystified for them. There’s no secrets with Twitter and Facebook. People go to a club and they can Tweet and say, “This place sucks.” There’s a sharing of information that in many ways has democratized things, but in many other ways has demystified certain rites of passage because they’ve seen it, or hear about it. They don’t experience things as much; they’re so into writing or documenting the experience that they lose out in the experience itself.
It’s information overload and then it all tastes the same.
If you go to a club now, I feel like everyone’s worried about, they’re on their cell phones, and they’re either taking pictures and posting it, or they’re writing about it. There’s no more letting those places be an incubator of music and dialogue. In many ways it’s just about documenting things and it’s weird. It’s a funny dynamic.
Where do you think people can still discover music and form a community now? As in a physical location that isn’t just file sharing?
I’m sure that there are little spots, but the electronica movement is alive and well, it’s just different. It’s a roving party, they do it in terms of a one time event. There was a time in New York when it was not so one-time aspect driven; it was every Friday night. You could go and hear something and be part of something that was happening. It’s venues have changed, it’s concerts. There is no venue in New York.
What other New York stories are you looking to tell?
There’s a film called ‘Jack and Diane’ that captures a certain part of New York that is a seventeen year old’s playground, and that was a very different beast than it is today. Getting a fake id, trying to sneak into clubs, you know, hanging out in Washington Square Park. I think those things also take place, these kids just have it differently than I did.
Limelight is out in limited release this weekend.
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